Saturday, April 28, 2007

American aesthetics I: Bingham's Lion

George Caleb Bingham, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, 1845

In an earlier post, I initiated a discussion whose eventual goal is to articulate whatever it is that informs an American aesthetic (assuming there is an aesthetic that is identifiably American). It had as its starting point a (to my mind) thought-provoking passage from this post by Gawain at his most-excellent arts and culture blog, Heaven Tree:

My third observation is that all the eclectics I have ever known have all been Americans. I have never heard a Chinese, a Japanese, or a European argue for the equality of pop and classical (or interchangeability of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Claudio Monteverdi). What is it about Americans which makes it possible for them to believe such things? Indeed, to experience them? Is their ideological commitment to imagined equality of everything so strong as to make them blind to obvious emotional stimuli? Or do they have congenitally different brains? I don’t know. I really do not know. It is one of those ways in which my American friends (of whom many I love dearly) will remain to me inscrutable ciphers. A human mystery.

Wittgenstein once said: If a lion could speak, we would not understand him.

Well, yes. (Emphasis added)

By way of response to this passage, I said that that there was some truth here but that it needed teasing out. This is the the beginning of that, in which, below the fold, I'll make an argument that American aesthetics more properly rests on the principle of pastiche than of eclecticism.

As I have thought about this passage and how to respond, it struck me that the aesthetic egalitarianism Gawain attributes to Americans in the above passage is a bit off-target. Americans have historically had the cultural attitude of not "What is the best that has been thought and said?" but "What is at hand?"--it is something of a plein air approach to aesthetics, as Emerson argues we should have:
Banks and tariffs, the newspaper and caucus, Methodism and Unitarianism, are flat and dull to dull people, but rest on the same foundations of wonder as the town of Troy and the temple of Delphi, and are swiftly passing away. Our log-rolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes and Indians, our boats and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearning, Oregon and Texas, are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in our eye; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for meters. . . . [W]hen we adhere to the ideal of the poet, we have our difficulties even with Milton and Homer. Milton is too literary, and Homer too literal and historical. ("The Poet")

In the same essay Emerson says he "look[s] in vain for the poet whom [he] describes[s]," though he had at hand the examples of Irving, Cooper, Longfellow and Bryant--all of whom made use of just the materials Emerson lists in their poems and narratives. Perhaps Emerson felt their art was still too beholden to European models. Whatever the case, Emerson also had available to him the by-then 300-year-old example of Latin American Baroque art and architecture, a "What is at hand?" aesthetic sensibility if there ever was one, as Miguel Rojas Mix's article "The Angel with the Arquebus: Baroque Art in Latin America" makes clear.

Here is that article's concluding paragraph:
Baroque art in Latin America is not a mere transposition of Spanish or Portuguese art. It is a hybrid art. And it embraces more than two cultures, for along with the Spanish tradition it received the Arab heritage in the form of the mudejar style. It is said that the Indian contribution is shown in a preference for a range of pure colours and in the use of abstraction in the portrayal of figures. But the Black influence can also be seen, both in the dark complexion of angels and Virgins and in the syncretism of African gods with the traditional Christian saints. A marvellously enriched style emerged from all these influences, the style of an art that was fundamental to a new world. Such is the art we know as 'Latin American Baroque'.

What's described here is not eclecticism but pastiche. As I understand the term, eclecticism is an appreciation for diverse cultural expressions but also a recognition of their integrity. That's not the same thing as saying all artforms are created equal. Pastiche, on the other hand, is the realm of syncretism, of miscegenation, of hybridity. It's the creative dynamic of a space that can produce a Natty Bumpo; a novel that is simultaneously a sea-faring tale, a work of naturalism, and metaphysical quest; a space in which the Virgin can appear as a mestiza; a place with stone-carved Christs on crosses girded with loincloths decorated with indigenous symbols.

These days, the tendency is to talk of pastiche as a feature of postmodernism, as a sign of our cultural distrust in past genres to signify what they used to. In this sense, then, pastiche is actually a destructive force. In the case of American aesthetics, though, pastiche is profoundly, radically creative. It is (or at least once was) driven by the sense that something new was being made in this hemisphere; the old forms, European or indigenous or African, would not serve.

Bingham's painting captures this sense well, I think. The men, garbed in a fusion of Western and indigenous garb, regard us warily. They are heading downstream--toward a town--to sell their furs. Compared to the Plains and Rockies, might Civilization be riskier still for them? The cat and his reflection in the water miraculously balance the composition--and in more ways than one. Sitting placidly in the bow of the canoe as he does, he seems like a bit of Civilization taken into the wilderness by these men. Look closer, though, and we see he's tethered. Is he a flight risk? A danger, perhaps, to the men he accompanies?

On the water's almost-blank surface, almost any narrative might be written.


Camille said...

woah, cool post. But I have some other apple fry here...

I just responded to The Road, by your fave Cormac McC here

I would have never stole it from the teacher's lounge if you hadn't have spoken of him so highly on your blog. I didnt find it a particularly enjoyable read, but I couldnt put it down, either. El Caballero informs me that it is the most cheery book he's written yet, and I did cry at the end, especially when (I won't spoil it!)

René López Villamar said...

Mr. Meridian:

It seems the conversation here is following the same patterns as in Umberto Eco's Apocalittici e integrati (I quote the Italian since the every doubtful Wikipedia says nothing about a complete English translation). Gawain is clearly one of the apocalittici, and you're one of the integrati.

Also, a funny think happened while I read the post. When I read about "a novel that is simultaneously a sea-faring tale, a work of naturalism, and metaphysical quest" I first thought of Alessandro Baricco's Oceano mare before realizing you were talking about Moby Dick. So maybe the line between American and European aesthetics is getting blurry with time.

From my perspective, I don't really think pastiche is not a defining characteristic of American aesthetics in particular.Emerson said that American art "embraces more than two cultures", Spanish and Arab. However, Spanish culture is already a hybrid of more than two cultures, considering the many cultures that lived and clashed in the peninsula, including the Arabs, but also the Visigoths, the Celts, the Iberians, the Romans, etcetera. Spanish Baroque poetry, for instance, was greatly influenced by Italian versification. Hybridization, I think, its a necessary condition of culture, and therefore of aesthetics in particular.

I think that a good place to search for an American aesthetic is in the idea of modernity. That's another way to read Bingham's painting. It could also help to explain Gawain's perception of eclecticism: the fascination of the Americas, and of the Americans, with all things new.

John B. said...

I think that a good place to search for an American aesthetic is in the idea of modernity.

Well, yes. As you note in various ways in your comment, Americans have no choice in the creating of a mythos and a culture but to do so in the modern moment, seeing as New World culture (defined here as that which came into existence on October 12, 1492) has no pre-historical moment.

I do think, though, that pastiche for "us" is not mere play and certainly not, ultimately, nihilistic--or, at least, it didn't start out that way. I have in mind here the opening paragraph of Emerson's essay "Nature," which isn't aesthetics per se but certainly is a philosophical and theological declaration of independence from Europe in its call for a seeking of an original relation to the universe. José Martí's "Nuestro América" would fit here as well. Aesthetic implications inevitably arise from such statements.

There will be a Part II that'll try to deal with all this. The idea of all cultures being hybrids will certainly be a part of that, as will the fact that in this hemisphere what class distinctions we make between "high" and "low" culture are imported and not indigenous.

R. Sherman said...

Alright, I'm going to print this out and read it about a thousand times and hope I have something worthwhile to add.

I just want you to know, re: An American aesthetic, that I intend to listen to that new country song, with the lyric "I want to walk you through a field of wild flowers, then check you for ticks."



John B. said...

It's not American, but Mallarme has a poem called "The Lice-Hunters" (text here) . . .

As to the rest, I look forward to hearing what you have to say.

Camille said...

randall, that is the most beautiful thing I have heard...